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Calif. rail agency cites engineer error in train collision

Operator failed to heed stop signal

Los Angeles firefighters yesterday surveyed the wreckage of a commuter train that collided head-on with a freight train in the Chatsworth section of Los Angeles on Friday. Los Angeles firefighters yesterday surveyed the wreckage of a commuter train that collided head-on with a freight train in the Chatsworth section of Los Angeles on Friday. (Gus Ruelas/Reuters)
By Gillian Flaccus
Associated Press / September 14, 2008
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LOS ANGELES - A commuter train engineer who ran a stop signal was blamed yesterday for the nation's deadliest rail disaster in 15 years, a wreck that killed 25 people and left such a mass of smoldering, twisted metal that it took nearly a day to recover all the bodies.

A preliminary investigation found that "it was a Metrolink engineer that failed to stop at a red signal and that was the probable cause" of Friday's collision with a freight train in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell said. She said she believes the engineer, whose name was not released, is dead.

"When two trains are in the same place at the same time somebody's made a terrible mistake," said Tyrrell, who was shaking and near tears as she spoke with reporters.

Authorities later announced that the effort to recover bodies from the Metrolink train's crushed front car had ended, with the death toll at 24. It rose to 25 when USC Medical Center spokeswoman Adelaide DeLaCerda said a 50-year-old man taken to the hospital from the wreck died yesterday. She would not release his name.

"It was a very, very difficult operation," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said. "It was like peeling an onion to find all the victims there."

A total of 135 people were injured, with 81 transported to hospitals in serious or critical condition. There was no overall condition update available yesterday, but a telephone survey of five hospitals found nine of 34 patients still critical. Many were described as having crush injuries.

Deputy Fire Chief Mario Rueda said the chance that anyone was still alive in the wreckage was "very remote." The last survivor was pulled out Friday evening, said Fire Captain Armando Hogan.

The collision occurred on a horseshoe-shaped section of track in Chatsworth at the west end of the San Fernando Valley, near a 500-foot-long tunnel underneath Stoney Point Park. There is a siding at one end of the tunnel where one train can wait for another to pass, Tyrrell said.

"Even if the train is on the main track, it must go through a series of signals and each one of the signals must be obeyed," Tyrrell said.

"What we believe happened, barring any new information from the NTSB, is we believe that our engineer failed to stop . . . and that was the cause of the accident. Tyrrell said Metrolink determined the cause by reviewing dispatch records and computers.

National Transportation Safety Board member Kitty Higgins said her agency, which is leading the inquiry, is waiting to complete its investigation before making any statements about the cause of the accident. It hopes to complete its final report within a year.

Higgins said rescue crews yesterday recovered two data recorders from the Metrolink train and one data recorder and one video recorder from the freight train. The video has pictures from forward-looking cameras and the data recorders have information on speed, braking patterns, and whether the horn was used.

Police set up what they called a unification center at a local high school to try to connect worried people with information about friends or relatives who they believed were aboard the train.

Families of eight of the dead had been notified and two women who were pronounced dead at hospitals were unidentified, coroner's Assistant Chief Ed Winter said.

The only victim officially identified is Los Angeles police officer Spree Desha, 35, of Simi Valley, who was riding the train home. Donna Remata, 49, was also among the dead, her sister, Debra Nieves, said yesterday.

Tyrrell said the engineer had driven the agency's trains since 1996 and worked for a subcontractor, Veolia, since 1998. She said she didn't know whether the engineer ever had any previous problems operating trains or had any disciplinary issues.

Tim Smith, state chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, a union representing engineers and conductors, said issues that could factor into the crash investigation could be faulty signals along the track or engineer fatigue. Smith said engineers in California are limited to 12 hours a day running a train, although that can be broken up over a stretch as long as 18 hours.

It was not immediately clear how many hours the train's engineer had worked.

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